A Glass Half Full

Speaking Out


Foreign Service personnel are congenital pessimists. But in light of today’s realities, we should not be. Perhaps to appreciate the pinnacle on which we now stand, we should recall the tough slog that got us here.

We have had philosophical pessimism imbued in our souls. The maxim might be that while a pessimist can be pleasantly surprised, an optimist is continually disappointed. Still, there is more cause for optimism now than for several generations.

To be sure, there are many causes for legitimate complaint: the plethora of political appointees, each batch worse than their predecessors; the family challenges from “long war” terrorism and expeditionary diplomacy; the slow pace of promotions, ending with post-career challenges from “up or out” regulations; and grim recognition that the U.S. public notices its diplomats only when they get killed.

But I write to praise the contemporary Foreign Service, not to toss a shovel of despair on its casket.

I entered the Foreign Service in June 1968 and my wife, Teresa, in January 1974; between us, we are approaching a century of FS experience, both active and retired. And over the course of our careers, we have seen radical improvements.

Greater Openness

In 1968, when I entered the Foreign Service, its ranks included women—but still not married ones, because any female FSO who married had to resign her commission. But by the time Teresa joined in 1974, regulations had changed, creating “tandem couples.” Additionally, a naturalized citizen no longer had to wait 10 years to apply for the Foreign Service—another restriction that had previously excluded my wife.

A generation ago, assignments were “old boy” directed. Friends in high places placed their preferred candidates in the best jobs, regardless of qualifications. Entrants who started their careers in backwaters rarely made the connections that led to choice assignments and rapid promotion.

The current “bid” system is convoluted, and still subject to manipulation, but it is significantly more transparent than its predecessor.

Greater Equality

In my A-100 class, there were just three women, but there were five in my wife’s, all carefully positioned in the front row for the class photo.

Now the changed composition of A-100 classes is obvious. Many classes these days are 50-percent female.

Elimination of Open Racial Discrimination. While the Foreign Service wasn’t “lily white” in 1968 (African-Americans and other minorities had been serving for nearly a century), racial minorities were modestly represented. There were six black FSOs in my A-100 class, including one woman; five became ambassadors.

There is still much more to be done to ensure that equal employment opportunity extends to all Foreign Service personnel. But as organizations like the long-standing Thursday Luncheon Group can attest, State and the other foreign affairs agencies have made real progress.

The Closet Is Open. For most of my career, there were no openly gay diplomats in the Foreign Service. They were well-represented in its ranks, of course, and as effective as any other officer. But they had to be extremely discreet in their romantic lives—if, indeed, they had any. The idea that LGBT individuals would eventually be accepted at the top ranks of the Service was inconceivable.

But Much Stronger Security Rules

State used to be remarkably casual about security. Fifty years ago, while I was serving as an Army intelligence officer in Seoul, the embassy passed an assortment of SECRET material to the Eighth Army G-2 Headquarters that arrived without cover sheets or a chain-of-transmission responsibility list. We were appalled.

In Washington, the State Department had no “double-check” system for safes and office doors at the close of business and only casual control over who entered the building or your office. Steadily over the decades, not just after 9/11, security has tightened. The amateurish photo ID that once let waggish officers substitute their dog’s photo for their own has been replaced by state-of-the-art IDs with double-coded entry systems.

After bitter experience, ranging from a disappearing computer (hopefully only stolen by cleaning staff, not espionage-connected) to a listening device in a State Department conference room (a foreign diplomat was detected receiving transmissions), internal security has also tightened. The ultimate embarrassment remains the “man in the brown tweed jacket,” who entered the Secretary of State’s outer office and walked away with the all-source morning briefing pouch ... and was never seen again.

Combined with revelations that some officers nominated for ambassadorial appointments had a significant number of security violations, these shortcomings prompted a major security overhaul. There are now stringent rules regarding penalties for security violations that can be career-threatening (or at least promotion-delaying).

The blistering recognition that 9/11 terrorists were in the USA with legitimate visas, not “illegals” slipping across the border from Canada or Mexico, prompted extensive rethinking of admission policies. The largest group of new FSOs is now in the consular cone; virtually every applicant from most countries is personally interviewed by a U.S. officer with computerized “lookout” lists constantly consulted.

Concern for security has also been driven by WikiLeaks’ distribution of massive amounts of classified material to the global media and Edward Snowden’s even more disastrous revelations of NSA operations, the ramifications of which are still unfolding.

Consequently, security today is anything but casual. Diplomatic Security officers are now among the largest contingent of State Department personnel. We are doubtless more secure, but “nervous in the Service” is also a reality when a security violation is no longer a trivial offense.


Until the 1970s, the concept of making the Foreign Service “family-friendly” literally did not exist. (One recalls the old military maxim, “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.”) Particularly in developed countries, support came primarily from Foreign Service colleagues, not from post management or Washington. As a result, arranging housing, finding suitable schools for one’s children, and dealing with separations and family emergencies could all be real struggles.

Larger societal changes have, thankfully, brought the Service into the 21st century. Management now recognizes that spouses have careers that require accommodation, particularly those in tandem couples. If the spouse and family are not happy, the FSO is not—and the chances rise that he or she will depart. With the creation of the All-Volunteer Army, the U.S. military has learned to pay a great deal of attention to assuring family support on bases, both for stateside and deployed assignments.

In Washington, the State Department had no “double-check” system for safes and office doors at COB and only casual control over who entered the building.

State is still playing catch-up to some extent, but the Family Liaison Office, along with Community Liaison Offices at posts and youth support groups (“Around the World in a Lifetime”), have helped. There is also much greater flexibility in terms of timing high school education to alleviate the trauma of moving a rising senior from one school to another.

The growing number of FS personnel on unaccompanied assignments for a year or more find it much easier to keep in touch with loved ones via innovations like Skype—allowing the FS member to know about every physical or social misery without being able to help.

The Double-Edged Sword of High Tech

In 1968 we were not reporting on clay tablets written in cuneiform and delivered via Pony Express. Most standard reporting was by airgram (in effect, a memorandum sent by diplomatic pouch whose delivery often took weeks). Telegrams, written in compressed language (“telegraphese”), were reserved for high-priority communications.

In the late 1970s, State got low-level Wang computers with text editing capabilities, and high-priority embassies received optical scanners for telegram transmission. Frenzy mounted. By working until midnight in Washington, you could send guidance to European posts that would arrive by the opening of business. Conversely, by working until midnight, European posts could send responses that would arrive at midday in State, thus continuing the frenzy-response cycle.

Almost unnoticed, airgrams disappeared, and the number of telegrams sent/received at State rose exponentially. Today, of course, many if not most official communications travel via email. Quantity isn’t necessarily quality (“garbage in; garbage out”); but the fact that employees can now send and receive massive amounts of information provides the opportunity for regular sophisticated analysis.

Another example: A generation ago we were still using rotary phones; as late as 1980, I had to scream into the telephone while calling our embassies in places like Ankara and Athens. Now, calls almost anywhere in the world, even over a secure line, are almost as clear as if you were speaking with someone in the next cubicle.

The Internet. In my day, the idea of social networking was closer to “Dick Tracy” wrist-radio science fiction than reality. Over the last 20 years, the Internet moved from something Al Gore just invented to the instant go-to resource for virtually any type of information, and “crackberries” taught us why opposable thumbs are really useful.

Indeed, instead of stacks of dead-tree cables delivered to your desk, today employees have a huge range of computer-accessible material transmitted from around the world. Unclassified and classified systems provide information from embassies, as well as the full range of global media. Once we lugged paper drafts from one office to another, collecting clearances and noting “edits” to be incorporated in the next draft.

The most sophisticated system was the “long-distance Xerox,” or LDX, which could send a small selection of high-priority messages between State, Defense and the National Security Council. Now coordination can be done electronically domestically and globally—but it requires 29 clearances for a second-echelon action.

It is even possible to work remotely, using a fob that permits coded access to State Department computers and communication with colleagues throughout the world. Technology is amazing—until it isn’t, and you find that your password has expired or remote access inexplicably fails.

As a result, Foreign Service members in the field are no longer without connectivity and guidance. Secure communication is the norm, so you know what you are to do and when to do it, and Washington knows what you have done—virtually instantly. To be sure, this capability is a mixed blessing; reins are tight, and being “out of touch” is no longer an option. Finding a vacation spot that does not have Internet access has become an art form.


In the late 1960s, an untenured employee faced an evaluation with a confidential section. The rater and reviewer could each record pleasing positives in the open section and insert knives in the confidential material. Additionally, if the employee were married, his wife was also rated.

That mechanism was an astonishing invasion of privacy, at least partly designed to keep wives “in line” and supporting husbands’ careers by performing good works under the supervision of often-imperious senior embassy wives. That said, it did serve me well: my wife was so lauded by my rating officers that my career development officer said she was “exactly the type of woman who should take the FS exam.” As regulations had just changed to accord her such an opportunity, she did just that. After passing, she pursued a highly successful career.

Since then, personnel evaluations have become more transparent and intricate—but also less meaningful. At times, it appears that every officer can turn water into wine by walking on it—and generate a premier cru, to boot.

The evaluation system continued to evolve. State devised work requirement statements, equivalent to contracts, so employees knew specifically what they were to perform. Raters had to review an employee’s progress regularly; and each evaluation had to include an area for improvement (which generated some of the Foreign Service’s most creative writing).

The Employee Evaluation Report was also expanded to include a personal statement by the rated employee in which to elaborate on an area of accomplishment or rebut a criticism. Bearing out the aptness of the informal term for that section, the “suicide box,” one witless officer reportedly offered a 1,000-word rebuttal of the observation that he was verbose.

Current evaluations are still more complex: rated employees now describe how well they fulfilled their work requirements, an assessment balanced by rater/reviewer commentary.

Dickens Was Wrong

Today, members of the Foreign Service live in neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. Virtually every improvement identified above has a commensurate downside. But with a “glass half full” attitude, one can conclude that for individual diplomats the systemic improvements outweigh the associated disadvantages.

Then again, recall the down-in-the-dumps officer who heard a little voice saying, “Cheer up; things could be worse.” So he cheered up—and, sure enough, things got worse.

David T. Jones is a retired Senior Foreign Service officer and frequent contributor to the Journal. He is the author of Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other (Woodrow Wilson Center, 2014), editor of The Reagan-Gorbachev Arms Control Breakthrough: The Treaty Eliminating Intermediate-Range (INF) Missiles (New Academia Publishing, 2012) and co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs: Canada, the USA and the Dynamics of State, Industry and Culture (Wiley, 2007).